How do you lead a small group online, when you're used to meeting in person? This article deals with every aspect of virtual groups, from choosing a platform to reassuring members.

How to Lead a Discipleship Group (When you Can’t Meet in Person)

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“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another”, says the writer of Hebrews (10:24-25).

Had this crisis hit us 20 years ago – nay, even 10 years ago – we might have been forced to lay aside this advice.

But today, in 2020, we have numerous ways of connecting online, ensuring that no one feels isolated. Sure, it’s not the same as meeting face-to-face, but it’s a habit we’re going to have to get into, because of all the good it does when we encourage each other and spur one another on.

This article is for anyone who is working out how to lead a small group via technology over the coming weeks. It’s not a technical post – although I will mention several platforms you may find helpful – but more a post about leadership.

How do we lead a discipleship group with wisdom and sensitivity in this time? How can we gather our tribe so that no one feels isolated? And what do we do when people cannot access the technology?

This week I’ve led two groups via WhatsApp. The first was our local prayer support group for Christian adopters and foster carers, which meets monthly. The second was our weekly house group of mums which usually meets in the daytime with creche. What follows is a few things I’ve been learning from these experiences – and I’ll be adding to this post if I discover new and helpful things to pass on.

How do you lead a small group online, when you're used to meeting in person? This article deals with every aspect of virtual groups, from choosing a platform to reassuring members.

What technology should I use?

There are myriad options available to us, including but not restricted to: Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, Facebook Live, Discord, Google Hangouts and Facetime.

In deciding which method is best for your group, consider:

  • accessibility – what do people already have downloaded or available on their phones, tablets or computers?
  • group size – how many people are you trying to incorporate?
  • inclusivity – would some members find a particular format difficult, triggering or challenging?
  • communication – are you happy to type, or would you prefer to hear each other’s voices, or even see each other’s faces?
  • live/recorded – do you want to interact in real time, or have the conversation saved so that others can catch up later?
  • membership – are young children usually present? Will they be present now, as self-isolation becomes commonplace and schools start to close? If so, perhaps trying to hear each other over Skype won’t work! A typed format like WhatsApp, where you can look over each other’s comments at a convenient time, might be more appropriate.

>> READ: How to Survive School Closure (Without Losing Your Sanity) <<

What about those in my group who can’t access technology?

Churches’ biggest concern right now is the group of people known to them who aren’t able to access the Internet consistently or at all. And social distancing means we can’t pop round and set them up with a laptop either.

So how do you approach this as a group leader? Inclusivity is important, as I said. So do all you can to find an approach which works for the majority of your group members.

If one or two can’t access it, then think creatively about how to include them in your group time. Perhaps you could have them on the phone while the group meets via Skype or Facebook Live, so that you could relay important parts of the discussion to them, and share their thoughts with the group.

If members have access to email, perhaps you could copy and paste chunks of the discussion into an email to send them, at the time or later, so they feel they didn’t miss out.

And, if it’s safe to do so, you could even post a printed copy of the Bible study passage and questions through their door in advance, so they feel connected to what the rest of the group is studying.

Helping all group members feel connected is important – but, realistically, if some cannot access this, then it will be necessary to find a platform which works for the majority, and include the non-accessing member/s as well as you can around these plans.

How should I prepare my group?

First of all, reassure everyone that you will still be planning to meet at the same time as usual – this routine can help steady those of us who are anxious and unsettled, as well as

Next, ask the group members how they’d like to ‘meet’ – you may need to offer some options here for what you can actually provide. Make sure that each group member has shared their opinion with you – if not, message them individually or ring them up to check.

At a time like this, inclusivity is even more important, so try to ensure that everyone’s needs are taken into consideration, and it’s not just those who are more proactive in coming forward who get their preference of format.

Another important way you can prepare your group is by reminding them to offer a lot of grace to each other. Remember that when we’re communicating online – especially if only by text – our words can be taken in different ways. Without tone of voice or body language (and these are not always obvious even with video calling), it is easy for people to misinterpret what is being said. Don’t! Remind people to be gracious and to take things in the best possible spirit.

Finally, remember that even with your plans made for when and how you’re going to virtually ‘meet’, some group members may be feeling anxious, concerned that they won’t be able to participate very much or very well, or worried about how the new-style group will feel.

My advice is: reassure, reassure, reassure! It is so important to get this all off to a good start, as it may be how our groups meet for a long time to come yet. So do your best to relax and reassure everyone who needs it – by group message, personal message or even a phone call.

You just need people to get on board with the concept. By the end, they’ll probably be surprised to find that they really appreciated the solidarity and time together, and hence more positive for the next meeting.

One final tip: encourage group members to focus on the meeting alone, if possible. When we meet virtually, it’s easy to keep different screens open and take calls etc, but it will be much better for everyone if we try to focus on the group, if possible.

Of course we can’t make anyone do this – but we can make sure we do it ourselves! Resist the temptation to get on with admin simultaneously to running a virtual group – like running a live group, you need to stay in the moment, listen well and respond wisely to what comes up.

How do you lead a small group online, when you're used to meeting in person? This article deals with every aspect of virtual groups, from choosing a platform to reassuring members.

How should I prepare the content?

In exactly the same way as you would do usually. If you’re leading a Bible study, look through the material, read the passage several times, read the questions and work through your own answers. Decide which to omit, if necessary.

If you’re leading a prayer meeting, prepare as you would normally. Perhaps this involves updating yourself with the news (although protect yourself by sticking to one or two trusted sources), and having a think about how to prompt different prayers.

How do I start the group?

It helps to be a little ahead of the game when using technology – especially if there might be teething issues just getting everything to work properly. I suggest logging on to your chosen platform 10 minutes in advance if you and group members are familiar with it, but 20 minutes in advance if any of you are not.

You may have to take phone calls from flustered group members who can’t get the technology working – so allow for this by being ready 20 minutes in advance.

Then, when it comes to your start time, announce this – either by text, audio or video, depending on your agreed format – and it might be good to start with an ice-breaker question.

Today I asked, “Would you like to share one word (more if you wish) to sum up how you’re feeling?” We were typing on WhatsApp, hence the one-word idea – but you could vary this question to your situation.

I recommend starting with a version of this question because it not only gets people to start talking/typing, but it gives you, as the group leader, some vital information about how to lead your group with sensitivity. If people are feeling nervous and unsettled, it may affect the questions you ask, or the phrasing you use as you ask them. Or people may be feeling much more positive than you were expecting, and you can adapt your wording and leading to match.

Our group found great solidarity this morning not only in being able to express how we were feeling, but in finding that we had shared emotions and experiences about the whole thing. This started our group off in a good place – a place of community, connection and trust.

Leading the focus of the group

One difference you may notice when you meet ‘virtually’ is in pace. You may find that conversation stops where it would flow if you were together – or vice versa. You may also find – if you’re typing to each other – that the order of events is slightly jumbled, as people write responses to each other’s words as well as share new thoughts and ideas.

For this reason, I recommend that you move on to the focus of your meeting fairly quickly, post-icebreaker. Whether you’re leading a Bible study or a prayer meeting, aim to start within the first 5-10 minutes of the group start time to ensure that the pace is kept moving.

Even if you feel some group members are anxious and need more reassurance, as long as you’ve given them this prior to the meeting and at the start during the icebreaker, it will probably be better for them if you just get into the flow of what you’re actually gathering to do, whether that’s study the Bible together or pray and worship together (or both). Keeping this routine, and keeping a clear structure to the group session will help people to feel secure and settled.

And, as I said above, be gracious in how you communicate. If you feel someone’s meaning could easily be misunderstood in a fairly negative way, perhaps clarify what you think they said/meant, or ask them to expand on what they mean.

Leading a bible study

If you’re typing together, it will help your group if you copy and paste the Bible passage into the group chat so that everyone has it in one place and can refer back when needed.

If you’re speaking together, invite someone to read the passage as you might do usually – it’ll be good for people to hear different voices from yours!

Then, ask the questions as you would usually. Type or speak the first question, and wait for people’s responses. I’m that terrible group leader who always talks too much, but found that because I was having to type everything on my phone, I actually said less and made sure that what I was typing made sense, rather than rambling on verbally!

Responding to people’s comments and ideas is just as important – nay, even more so – than when leading a group in person. People need to feel seen and valued, and their contributions validated – even if heretical!! Acknowledging what someone has said doesn’t always have to mean agreeing with them, but it’s polite and shows great honour for the person who’s been brave enough to share.

Just as you would do usually, input short ideas where appropriate, and ask questions to draw out what people are saying.

Plus: don’t forget to laugh together! And yes, this is possible even when you’re not together in person! Don’t be afraid to lighten the mood or respond to others when they make a witty comment. We all need a positivity boost these days – and being ‘normal’ with each other will help to settle those in the group who might have been concerned at how it was going to go.

How do you lead a small group online, when you're used to meeting in person? This article deals with every aspect of virtual groups, from choosing a platform to reassuring members.

Praying together

When you come together to pray, share prayer requests as normal, and type/speak prayers as appropriate. You may find yourself leading the way in this, as others might feel silly praying over text or praying with their eyes open on Skype. But as you lead by example, others will follow. It may even encourage those who don’t usually pray aloud to share their prayers.

Length of group

Our house group usually only meets for an hour in person, out of respect for the wonderful volunteers who look after group members’ children. So we met for an hour today on WhatsApp, and it was wonderful!

Whilst most groups usually meet for longer than this in person, I still recommend planning your virtual group to last for an hour.

Why? Because it’s intense. It takes a lot of brain power and energy to do something you’re not used to. It can be wearing on the fingers if you’re typing non-stop for an hour. Or on the eyes as you stare at a screen.

Setting a start and end time will also help you to keep moving the group forward. It will keep the content succinct and relevant, and ensure people don’t drift off to check Instagram.

Finally, although many are self-isolating right now, it’s amazing how many new jobs and tasks have filled our lives! Whether it’s traipsing round different shops to see where we can find loo roll, ordering craft supplies for our kids online, or connecting with work via online technology, your group members may well have quite a lot to accomplish today. Knowing that they will only be setting aside one hour for group time will help to eliminate any overwhelm they might be feeling.

(And if they’re stuck inside with kids, do share my article How to Survive School-Closure with them!)

Be encouraged

Let’s return to our opening verses:

“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another”, says the writer of Hebrews (10:24-25).

These could have been written for today! Now, more than ever, it is vitally important to ‘spur one another on’ and ‘encourage one another’.

However you do it – however long it takes to find a way which works for your group – please don’t give up meeting together. The positive impact of strengthened faith, reduced isolation, balanced mental and emotional health, and fresh Bible input to mull over is too precious too lose.

In fact, the consequences will be reaped eternally.


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